It was Fourth of July in the Colbert backyard. Nate couldn’t remember the last time he and Brad had been there. Probably the weekend he had taken to decide if he even wanted the job he now held in the Bartlett Administration. While exhausting, frustrating, and insanely demanding of his time, Nate didn’t regret having accepted the job.
Then again, when the President of the United States asks you to serve, you serve.
Brad stood next to him, dressed as casually as Nate, in shorts and a tank top. Nate hated Brad at the moment, though. The fucker was tan and healthy looking. Nate still felt pale and pasty, but they’d only been in California for two days. They were heading back in two more so there was little chance he’d ever match Brad’s golden brown.
“Medium, right Nate?” Brad’s father asked as he flipped a steak on the elaborate grill.
“That’s right, sir,” Nate answered.
Beside him, Brad snorted. He leaned in and pressed his lips to Nate’s temple and murmured, “How long are you gonna be part of this family before you start calling people by name?”
“Just as soon as I get to spend more than a few days a year in their company,” Nate replied ruefully.
“It’s not like you don’t have a really important job.”
“Brad, honey? Nate?” Brad’s mom called from the sliding glass door. “There are two men at the door. They say they work at the White House? They are a little overdressed for a holiday barbecue.”
Nate and Brad exchanged a look, before Nate headed into the house. Almost the entire staff was in California while the President campaigned for Democrats running for offices. Still, if they needed him for something, they could have called his cell.
Standing in the foyer of the Colbert house were Sam and Toby. Neither wore a jacket or tie and their sleeves were rolled up over their elbows. It was as casual as Nate had ever seen either of them.
“Hey guys, what’s wrong?” Nate asked, taking off his sunglasses.
“Nothing’s wrong, we were just in the neighborhood,” Sam said quickly.
“The neighborhood?” Nate was perplexed.
“We have a few hours before the President needs us again. We were sitting at the bar in the hotel but …” Toby trailed off.
“We got bored,” Sam concluded.
“So you went for a drive and ended up at the house of the parents of my Marine?” Nate raised his eyebrows.
“No, we got in the car and came straight here,” Toby said.
“You’re crashing the Colbert family Fourth of July barbecue. Is that what is happening here, gentlemen?” Nate asked.
“Yes,” Toby and Sam said in unison.
Nate looked from one to the other while he decided what to do. It would be rude to send them away, but it would also be rude to foist them on Brad’s family without warning.
He turned to see Brad standing in the doorway, watching them guardedly.
“Sam and Toby got bored,” Nate said. “Think your mom will mind if they stay?”
“They’re not here to collect you?”
Behind Nate, Toby and Sam both protested Brad’s assumption.
Brad nodded as the lines of his body relaxed visibly. Yeah, Nate had been worried, too, at first.
“Bring them back, I guess,” Brad said, disappearing into the house.
“Did you at least stop and pick something up? Chips? Salsa? Beer? Dessert?” Nate asked, as he led Sam and Toby toward the backyard.
“Oh! No!” Sam exclaimed. “It’s been so long since I’ve been to a backyard barbecue, I forgot that part.”
“Is that something we should have done?” Toby asked Sam.
“Yeah, it might have been the polite thing to do, since we just dropped in uninvited and unannounced.”
“Is there actually etiquette for a barbecue?”
“There is in California.”
When they reached the backyard, Nate made the introductions. “Everyone, a couple of my colleagues have joined us. Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications Director, and Sam Seaborn, Deputy White House Communications Director.”
He led them both around the yard, introducing them to each of Brad’s relatives. He was about to step in as a discussion between Sam and Brad’s sister got somewhat heated, when Brad appeared at his elbow.
“Thank you,” Nate sighed, taking the beer Brad handed him.
“This is unexpected,” Brad said dryly.
“I guess it would be a little boring and lonely, just sitting in a hotel bar on the Fourth of July. I can’t really blame them for wanting a little friendly social interaction.”
“You have no idea how thrilled my family is. Senior White House staff just hanging out, eating burgers, and talking politics. They’re all going to be minor celebrities themselves when they start bragging about this to people they know.”
Nate thought he heard the doorbell ring, but he wasn’t sure. Brad’s mom was inside the house in any case.
Moments later, she appeared in the doorway. “Nate, sweetie? There’s a Ms. Cregg at the door? She says she’s looking for her colleagues.”
Nate was about to step into the house when Brad put a restraining hand on his arm. “Oh, please allow me.”
Nate gestured for him to proceed.
Minutes later, Brad re-emerged from the house, CJ’s hand tucked in the crook of his arm.
“What a lovely home,” CJ enthused as Brad escorted her through the door. “Great backyard, too. Perfect for entertaining.”
Nate watched, unable to stop smiling, as Brad took CJ around the yard, introducing her to each member of his family. He sent his nieces and nephews running to gather food and drink for her.
Once again, Nate’s job was spilling over and invading their personal lives. They had so little time together and here, on what was supposed to be a long, uninterrupted weekend for the two of them, they were having to entertain Nate’s co-workers.
The sound of CJ’s laughter carried to Nate from across the yard. “Now, Gunnery Sergeant, that is not what happened!”
“I thought you worked in the White House?” Brad’s niece asked CJ with a confused expression.
“I do,” CJ replied brightly.
“I thought only Marines had to call uncle Brad by his rank.”
“You know I work for the President, right?”
“Well, you know that the President is the Commander In Chief of the Armed Forces, right?”
“Well, since I work for your uncle Brad’s top boss, I know, better than most people, just how important his work is. I sometimes call him by his rank out of respect.”
“I thought maybe you were mad at him. Uncle Nate calls him ‘Sergeant’ when he’s mad at him. Uncle Nate used to be a Marine, though.”
Nate choked on his beer as Brad glanced at him over the rims of his sunglasses, eyebrow raised.
This time, when Nate thought he heard the doorbell ring, his stomach sank.
“I’ll get the door,” he called, as he trudged into the house.
Nate wasn’t the least bit surprised when he opened it to find Josh and Donna.
“Everybody’s out back,” Nate said, nonplussed. He gestured in the direction of the backdoor.
“Nate, I am so sorry about this,” Donna said earnestly. “I told him it was rude to just drop in unannounced.”
“It’s a barbecue,” Josh said, hands shoved into the pockets of his pants. “I told her there’d be so many people here, two more wouldn’t be noticed.” Like Toby and Sam, Josh’s sleeves were rolled up.
“Except that there are five of you,” Nate informed him.
“No, just Donna and me.”
“And Toby and Sam and CJ.”
“Toby, Sam and CJ? Are they here? What are they doing here? When did they get here?”
Stepping into the backyard, Nate asked for everyone’s attention. “We’ve been joined by Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, and his Senior Assistant, Donna Moss. I expect the President and the First Lady will be here any minute.”
“No, they’re still out giving speeches,” Josh answered, obviously not understanding Nate’s dry tone.
“There’s no chance the President would actually show up here, is there?” Brad’s mom seemed panicked.
“No ma’am,” Nate said hastily. “I’m assured of this.”
He had to admit, it was fun. Warm sun, cold beer, good food, and a lot of people Nate liked. Nate really did like his co-workers.
Best of all, Brad was currently draped casually over Nate’s shoulders, talking to Toby about Hebrew school, of all things. Nate wound an arm around Brad’s waist and hooked his fingers in a belt loop. He held on tight.
Nate tuned back into the conversation between Josh and Donna.
“So, there are rules to a barbecue?” Josh asked.
“It’s a party, Josh. It’s just a party that takes place in a backyard, during the day, and centers around a really big propane grill.” Donna sounded exasperated, as usual.
“So, we should have brought the hostess a bottle of wine?”
“Beer would have been more appropriate.”
Josh took a sip from the beer bottle he held. “They have plenty.”
“That’s not the point,” Donna snapped. “We could have brought dessert. Maybe a watermelon.”
“A watermelon? What do they need a watermelon for?”
Donna rolled her eyes. “Never mind, Josh. Just – never mind.”
Josh’s cell phone rang. He stepped into the house before he answered it. Nate imagined Josh would be leaving soon. Maybe everyone would have to go with him. Nate found that thought disappointed him a little.
Brad was running a broad hand up and down Nate’s back when Josh came back out, still on his cell phone.
“Actually, Mr. President, I’m here with Nate right now.” Josh paused. “We’re all here. We’re having a barbecue with his Marine’s parents …no, sir, no one is talking about work with him … he’s wearing shorts … no he looks relaxed and he’s smiling … no, his Marine is smiling, too … yes, Mr. President, I’ll tell him … yes, sir … right away, Mr. President.”
Josh closed his phone and smiled at Nate with sympathy. Dread settled in Nate’s gut like a heavy stone and Brad tensed beside him.
“Guys, hey guys,” Josh called to the senior staff. “We need to go. Now.”
There were more complaints from Brad’s family than from the staff. Their President had called and they would respond immediately.
“Nate,” Josh said quietly. “He’s summoned you, too.”
“What?” Brad exclaimed, stepping closer to Josh. “What the hell?”
“Brad, come on, we knew there was a chance I’d get called away.” Nate put a restraining hand on Brad’s chest. He shared Brad’s disappointment but, the President had called.
“Actually,” Josh said. “President Bartlett wants to see Brad, as well.”
No one had a response to that. Nate could think of no reason why the President would specifically order Brad to accompany him.
“Well, he is my Commander in Chief,” Brad sighed.
“We have to shower and change,” Nate told Josh. “So, you all head back to the hotel and Brad and I will be right behind you.”
After the senior staff had left, Brad and Nate each dragged out a suit and shared the shower to save time. It was one of the few times showering together actually did save time. The President of the United States was waiting on them, after all.
“Do you think this is good or bad,” Brad asked quietly as they dressed. “The fact the President wants me with you?”
“No idea, Brad,” Nate answered honestly, because he really didn’t know what to make of the situation. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
They endured Brad’s family making much of their suits, both in compliments and teasing. Brad’s mom hugged Nate tightly.
“It’s a shame you two have interrupt your holiday like this,” she said. “You get so little time to yourselves. Hurry back. I’ll save dessert.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Nate said gratefully as she kissed his cheek.
Secret Service Agents opened the double doors of the President’s suite for Nate and Brad to enter. Inside, the President sat in a comfortable looking chair. Senior staff were gathered in the room and they all looked solemn. Nate’s heart sank.
“Everyone, give me a minute with Nate and Brad,” President Bartlett said. His words were softly spoken but the order was clear.
The roomed cleared out in seconds.
“Gentlemen, have seat,” the President gestured at the love seats that made up the conversation set that matched his chair.
Nate and Brad sat on love seats, on separate sides of the President.
“What’s happened, Mr. President?” Nate asked.
“I received some very sad news today,” President Bartlett said. “It saddens me on a personal level. It presents my Presidency with a dilemma. It forces me to have to ask more of you Nate. And you already give so much.”
“What is it you need from me, Mr. President?” Nate asked quietly, not daring to look at Brad.
“I have known for quite some time that one day I would have this conversation with you. I just didn’t expect it would be this soon, or under these circumstances.”
Nate waited for the President to continue in his own time.
“I received a phone call from Mark Hayden this afternoon.”
Mark was the current Secretary of State. Nate’s job interfaced and overlapped with Mark’s to a very large extent. They had an excellent working relationship. What’s more, Nate liked and respected Mark.
“He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”
Nate’s breath caught in his chest and his throat constricted. “I’m very sorry to hear that, Mr. President.”
“For obvious health reasons, he’s resigning immediately.”
“Of course, sir.”
“He and I talked for a very long time. We discussed names for his replacement.”
Of course, the President would want Nate’s input on a replacement for the position, given Nate’s close work with the Secretary and the Department.
That just didn’t explain why Brad’s presence had been requested.
“We started out with a short list of names,” President Bartlett continued. “It quickly became a short list of one name. We easily agreed on who should succeed Mark.”
“And who did you settle on, Mr. President?”
“You, Nate. We settled on you.”
Nate’s heart was in his throat. He narrowed his eyes, sure that he had heard wrong. His eyes shot to Brad, who stared at him with wide, shocked eyes.
“Me, sir?” Nate asked.
“There is no one more qualified or capable of doing the job. You already work closely with State on a daily basis. You know all the key players. You understand the cultures and politics. You’ve got the diplomacy skills, but at the same time you know just when to push back.”
“There are several people with more experience in Foreign Service, Mr. President,” Nate argued.
“There are people with more experience in travelling, Nate. They might know more about the mechanics of the job, but no one knows more about the politics and the personalities around the world.”
“One of Mark’s Assistant Secretaries is surely more qualified, sir.”
“Only within the Bureau they oversee. You’re the only one with the big picture.”
Nate was stunned speechless. Even if he’d known Mark was sick, he never would have thought he’d be considered as a replacement.
Someday, sure, but not today.
“Gunnery Sergeant,” President Bartlett said suddenly, now looking at Brad.
“Yes, Mr. President.” Brad sat up just a little bit straighter.
“What do you think of all this? And you have permission to speak freely.”
“Since you’ve asked him to, Nate will serve, Mr. President,” Brad replied. “He’ll give his very best, and he’ll do as good a job as you think he will, sir. Nate will not let you down, Mr. President.”
Nate hoped he wasn’t blushing.
“I hear a ‘but’, Brad,” the President said.
“Just personal feelings. Not relevant to your decision to appoint Nate to the job, Mr. President.”
“Don’t think I’m unaware of, or unsympathetic toward, the strain Nate’s work has put on the two of you personally. Neither of you complain and, you Gunny, put up with a city you don’t like and people you have nothing in common with, just to steal some time to be with Nate, whenever possible.”
“It’s not an ideal arrangement,” Brad acknowledged. “But it’s worked so far, Mr. President, and we can keep making it work.”
Nate was more than a little relieved to hear Brad say those words. He had no illusions about the fact that he was probably going to become Secretary of State, pending Senate approval. He didn’t ever want to have to choose between service to his country, and Brad.
“Let’s not forget that I am Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. I think we all know that Nate will be a far more effective Secretary of State if he’s happy, instead of always wishing he was in California.”
Brad glanced at Nate, but he had no idea where the President was head with this line of thought.
“There are several options you can choose from, Brad. I can arrange for you to go Reserves and travel full time with Nate. We’ll offset your monthly service until after he’s concluded the job.”
Nate looked at Brad in surprise and found he was already staring wide-eyed at Nate.
“I can simply make you inactive while you travel with him. When he’s done, you can pick up right where you left off. I can arrange for your retirement. I’ll consider your escorting Nate as the completion of your twenty. There’s always the option of an Honorable Discharge and hiring you on with Diplomatic Security Services. You can’t officially protect Nate, for obvious reasons. But I think we’re all realistic enough to know that if you’re a part of his bubble when he travels, nothing will stop you from watching his back. You might as well get paid for doing it.”
Nate’s heart hammered in his chest. He had no idea what Brad’s silence meant.
“Mr. President,” Brad said slowly, carefully. “Is there a chance Nate and I can have a moment to discuss this?”
Brad took Nate’s hand and led him into the hallway and out of earshot of the Secret Service Agents.
“Do you want the job?” Brad asked, standing close and lowering his head so they could speak quietly.
“You know I do. This is what I’ve been working toward.”
“Do you even want me with you all the time when you travel?”
“Brad, how can you even ask me that? Do you want to travel with me all the time. It’ll be grueling.”
“I’ve lived my dream, Nate. I’ve served my country as a United States Marine. You’ve put up with me living on a different coast and flying back and forth when I can arrange the leave.”
“I’ve enjoyed and appreciated every spare moment you could find.”
“I know. But what I’m saying is … I’ve had my turn. Maybe now it’s time to focus on you.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m asking if you’d like me to be a part of your Diplomatic Security Services, Mr. Secretary?”
Nate smiled. “It’s not official until I’m approved by the Senate.”
“Like that’s going to be a problem.” Brad smiled back.
“So. Are we going to do this?”
“You’re going to do this. I’m just going to be along for the ride, watching your back every step of the way.”
Nate tilted his face and placed a chaste kiss on Brad’s lips.
“Go on, Nate. Go tell the President you’re going to bring peace to the world.”
Nate snorted, but took Brad’s hand and led him back into the President’s suite.